Contractors optimistic about 2020, predicting growth in all major project types, AGC says

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Updated Dec 29, 2019

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As contractors approach the new year, optimism abounds for 2020’s construction outlook conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America.

Any major worries economists may have about the broader economy or specific segments don’t appear to be affecting the construction industry, according to the newly released AGC survey.

In survey responses from about 1,000 member firms between November 6 and December 9, the AGC found that contractors expect project value increases – ranging from 8 to 25 percent – in all 13 project types of the industry the association surveyed for. The project types are water and sewer; bridge and highway; K-12 school; hospital; transportation (rail, transit, airport); power; federal; higher education; multifamily residential; manufacturing; public building; retail, warehouse and lodging; private office; and other.

“The bottom line is most contractors expect demand to remain strong, and in many cases strengthen, in 2020 despite signs the overall economy may slow or stall,” said AGC CEO Steve Sandherr in a conference call December 18 to release the outlook survey.

“In particular, they expect demand for most types of public and institutional construction to expand. And while the outlook for many types of private-sector projects, including private office and multifamily residential, is less optimistic, more contractors expect demand in those segments to grow than shrink.”


More hiring, more shortages expected in 2020

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The AGC survey, conducted with Sage Construction and Real Estate, found that 75 percent of the firms plan to increase their number of employees. Only 5 percent expect to lay off workers; while 20 percent plan no change. A little over half plan to boost employment by 10 percent, with the rest planning to add anywhere from 11 percent to above 25 percent.

That optimism wears off, though, when talking about the labor shortage, which has persisted for the past several years. The survey found that 81 percent of contractors are having difficulty hiring for salaried and for hourly craft positions, with 70 percent expecting those difficulties to persist over the next 12 months.

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The shortage has also led to higher pay and benefits for workers, which translates into higher project costs and longer completion times. Forty-one percent of contractors surveyed said they have added those higher labor costs into bids or contracts, and 23 percent say they have added longer completion times into contracts or bids.

To try to increase the labor pool, firms have increased funding for technical education (32%), changed programming for current skilled labor recruits (29%) and revamped recruitment efforts (42%).


Labor-saving technology

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Some have begun adding labor-saving technology, such as drones, robots, 3D printers and laser- or GPS-guided equipment (32%) and building information modeling (28%); or adding specialists such as architects, BIM or lean construction personnel, drone or other equipment operators, data or IT personnel (17%).

“The technology areas with the largest planned increased investment are project management software, document management software, fleet tracking/management software, and estimating software,”  said Dustin Anderson, vice president of Sage Construction and Real Estate.

Though some are moving to more technology, they are also finding challenges.

“Forty-three percent of contractors say it’s difficult to find the time to implement and train on new technology,” Anderson said. “Employee resistance to technology and communication between the field and office are the other top concerns as identified by 38 percent and 36 percent of respondents, respectively. Connectivity to remote job sites was a close fourth, with 35 percent of respondents identifying it as one of their biggest challenges.”

The labor shortage also dominates concerns about the future, with 75 percent worried about worker quality; 44 percent, subcontractor quality; 39 percent, safety; 33 percent, inadequate career education and training; and 57 percent, rising labor costs for pay and benefits.

Other concerns firms mentioned: increased competition for projects (35%), material costs (31%); and government regulations (26% local and state; 20% federal).

To see the full 2020 Construction Hiring and Business Outlook Report, click here.